Bruce Conti remembers the exact moment when his son, Spencer, began to laugh again.
It was more than seven weeks after Spencer’s mother, Lee Anne Conti, found him totally unresponsive when she tried to wake him up one morning for a dental appointment while he was home from the University of Alabama on Thanksgiving break.
After spending three and a half weeks on a ventilator in the intensive care unit at Texas Health Resources Harris Methodist Fort Worth, Spencer was undergoing two months of physical therapy in Houston at the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research Memorial Hermann Research Center.
“I was standing at the door of his room at TIRR, while several of his childhood buddies from Fort Worth were visiting,” Bruce Conti recalls.
“I could hear his friends laughing and talking, and then suddenly I realized I was hearing Spencer laughing with them, and I started crying. It was very emotional,” Conti said recently. “We couldn’t get him to crack a smile or show any facial expression, but somehow his friends got through to him. From that day on, I knew we were going in the right direction.”
Now, Conti, a commercial real estate developer and president of Conti Warehouses in Fort Worth, is determined that his son and other North Texans who have suffered brain and spinal cord injuries will continue to progress “in the right direction.”
He and his wife have established the Neurological Recovery Center in the old Target store at Cherry Lane and Interstate 30 in west Fort Worth. They have equipped the center with state-of-the-art robotic therapy equipment and have hired physical therapists, certified through special training, to use the equipment.
The star of the center is a $400,000 LokomatPro, developed by Hocoma – a medical technology company based in Switzerland – for rehabilitation of patients with lower body deficits caused by stroke, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases and injuries. Conti first saw the machine in action with his son at TIRR.
The Lokomat is a gait therapy device that uses a computer-controlled harness and treadmill to create the precise physiological gait pattern and pace that each patient requires. It replicates the walking pattern over and over with exact consistency throughout the therapy session. The idea is to stimulate neuroplasticity, develop new brain cells and retrain the brain and spinal cord to work together to reestablish nerve pathways that were interrupted by injury or illness.
It also helps strengthen muscles, improve circulation and build stronger bones.
“The idea isn’t new. For at least 20 years, therapists have been working with patients in harnesses on treadmills, encouraging them to take steps, but it takes two therapists lifting and moving the patient’s feet, and it takes a lot of repetition,” said Jennifer Zoll, the physical therapist in charge of therapy at the new center. “Without computerized control, you are exhausted after 10 or 20 minutes. Plus, it’s impossible to exactly replicate the same gait over and over.
“With the Lokomat, the machine does the heavy work, and it will continue working as long as you need it,” Zoll said. “It also provides constant feedback and ongoing assessments that allow you to track the patient’s progress, which will be especially important when we start filing insurance claims.”
Another piece of special equipment in the new center is Hocoma’s Armeo Therapy Concept, a robotic system with a range of devices for computerized shoulder, arm and hand rehabilitation. And the center has a specialized tilt table called the Erigo, with integrated stepping functions that allow for safe verticalization of patients in the very early stages of rehabilitation, even while they are still unconscious and have no head and neck control. It can also help prevent secondary complications caused by immobility.
Those two machines totaled an additional $150,000.
Conti has installed them and some other less high-tech devices, including a chryosauna to drop body temperature and increase circulation, in his 4,000-square-foot Neurological Recovery Center. It has a large glass and steel overhead garage door in back so that patients can be driven directly into the air-conditioned center and taken in and out of vans and other vehicles without exposure to the elements.
He plans to buy three or four more Lokomats for the center as patient volume increases, and he would like to open additional centers throughout the area over the next several years.
Therapists began seeing patients at the center on doctors’ referrals in mid-May and have worked with a dozen, pro bono. They expected to continue on that basis through at least the second week of July, when they hoped to have the paperwork completed so they can file insurance claims, Zoll said.
While the Lokomat has had U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval since March 2002, there are only two others in North Texas. One is at the Dallas VA Medical Center, which purchased it recently and does not yet have therapists certified to use it, and one is at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, where it is used for research, Conti said.
He gives Lokomat therapy and doubling up on all other types of therapy much of the credit for his son’s gradual and ongoing recovery since he returned home last March.
One day in the previous July, when one of the therapists had finished for the day, he told Conti that Spencer had been doing all the right things and working hard all day.
“All day,” Spencer repeated.
Since that day he has slowly learned to carry on a conversation and recently began learning words in Portuguese.
Zoll says that when she began working with Spencer in his home, in March of 2014, after two months of rehab at TIRR, he was on a feeding tube and still pretty much in a vegetative state. She wasn’t sure what his prognosis would be, but today, she says, she’s hoping that a year from now he will be walking, maybe with a walker or other assist device, but walking on his own – as well as laughing and talking.
Conti says he will likely never know exactly when and how Spencer’s brain was injured, but doctors diagnosed and treated a bacterial infection that caused severe sepsis and multiple organ failure. They estimate he went without oxygen for four to six minutes.
“We are still willing to try everything – pharmacology, electrical stimulation, magnetic therapy, bariatric pressure, stem cells, anything that might help our son, but we believe this kind of intense physical therapy is the ticket for Spencer, and hopefully for others with similar brain injuries. We have a lot of veterans coming back with brain injuries and automobile accidents, babies born with brain injuries, older people with Parkinson’s,” Conti pointed out. “This has the potential to help a lot of people.”